The Margarita That Made Me a Better Bartender

Chalk (another) one up for the icon at Tommy's Mexican.

May 4, 2020 ‚óŹ 3 min read

By Adam “Boots” Brogan | Cassandra Landry/ChefsFeed

I started out as a club bartender.

Club cocktails are essentially anti-craft cocktails. Everything is artificially-flavored, out of a soda gun, and glowing radioactively from 10-ounce plastic cups.

Eventually, I moved on from the madness of clubs and began bartending at local neighborhood bars and restaurants. By then, my understanding of craft cocktails meant one thing: muddling. I’d run to the kitchen and come back, arms full of fruits and herbs ready to ambitiously mix up a dealer’s choice cocktail. Cucumber and mint? Classic combination. Strawberry and Basil? Yup. Jackfruit and fennel? Not so much. Every shift was full of trial and error, with my guests playing the sometimes happy (but often unfortunate) guinea pigs.

Then, one day my roommate suggested we swing by Tommy’s Mexican, a small family-owned restaurant in the outer avenues of the city.

Jake, the roommate, is a chef; we’ve been best friends since I moved to San Francisco 23 years ago. When we go out to eat, it’s always a scene — whether it’s Vietnamese in the Tenderloin, or a Brazilian restaurant in Berkeley, I always put my faith in him to order for the table.

It’s easy to drive right by Tommy’s without noticing it. Tucked onto a major thoroughfare that connects the city to the Pacific Ocean, the street is usually packed with cars and buses ferrying people home after a long day of work downtown. But people from all over the world make Tommy’s Mexican a destination when visiting San Francisco, all for one thing: the margarita.

That’s right—a drink I’d had hundreds of times before was about to change my life.

As you step in from the cold and through the front door at Tommy's, you notice the mosaic of family photos papering the space behind the register. Mexican music blasts out of an open kitchen as the chefs churn out Yucatan-style plates. Sombreros, paintings, and big, bright sarapes with fringed ends adorn the walls in the dining room. The booths, lined in diner-style scarlet red vinyl, each get their own flower arrangement. It doesn’t feel like a restaurant; it feels like a home.

That night, our server handed us a menu and directed our attention to the back page: a long list of tequilas and over 25 different margaritas without a single gimmick. No spicy jalapeno margarita. No strawberry blended margarita. Not even a Cadillac margarita. Every single margarita is listed simply by the tequila that it uses. With the exception of salt on the rim of your glass, the only other ingredients are fresh lime juice and agave syrup. That’s it.

We ordered a pitcher using Jake’s favorite tequila, Siete Leguas Reposado. Behind the bar, the bartenders feverishly cranked a hand citrus press, blowing through limes so fast and so rhythmic you’d think it was the sound of a mechanical piston firing. Psshhhh. Clink. Psshhh. Clink. Psshhh. Clink. The menu proudly boasts that the restaurant goes through 4,000 pounds of limes a month, but at the rate our bartender was working, I’d say they were shortchanging themselves.

I took my first sip, and instantly knew I had been lied to my whole life. What was the bullshit laced with sweet and sour mix that I’d drunk at cantinas and airports across the country? The smell of the fresh lime zest hit my nose right away, the tart juice following close behind and puckering my taste buds. The soft spice of the tequila blanketed my tongue in warmth, and the agave syrup coated my mouth like honey to round out the sharpness of the lime. All three worked in harmony for a perfectly balanced drink. Nothing overly sweet. Nothing overly sour. Nothing artificial.

The ratio? 2-1-1: two parts liquor, one part sour, one part sweet, like almost every iconic citrus-forward drink in the canon. If you didn’t know the rule before, write it down. I certainly did.

Weeks after that first Tommy’s margarita, I began to think about cocktails in a different way. I bought cocktail books that weren’t just recipe books, but full of foundational bartending knowledge, like The Craft of the Cocktail by Dale Degroff, Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold, and The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler. I needed to learn how to walk before I could run behind the bar. The Tommy’s margarita had inspired me to crawl, to make a three-ingredient cocktail and learn to add extra layers for aromatics, texture, or complexity—only one at a time.

I’ve visited Tommy’s Mexican many more times in the years since. I’m happy to report that everything is just as special as it was that first time. On my most recent visit, the restaurant was hosting Don Guillermo Sauza, tequila producer and founder of family-owned Fortaleza. On my way out, I asked my server about the infamous number of tequilas they offer and he brought me straight to the owner, Julio Bermejo.

I got my answer (350 different types of tequila available to the public and another 120 private labels in stock) and more, spending the dwindling hours of the night sipping Tommy’s own private Fortaleza barrel with Don Guillermo while the restaurant closed down around us.

Tommy’s makes exceptional margaritas, yes, but more importantly, they remind you of the importance of hospitality. I couldn’t help but hug Julio three or four times before leaving. Maybe it was the tequila. Maybe it was out of appreciation. Maybe it was a thank you for changing my life with something as simple as a margarita.